Jakarta – Ethnic unrest in a troubled Indonesian province has left dozens of people dead since the start of the year, a military source told AFP Wednesday, as unconfirmed independent figures put casualties in the hundreds. "Dozens of people have died since the start of the unrest," said a source in the military information office here, who declined to be identified.
The source did not give exact details on the dead, but it was the first official statement on casualties since violence erupted in Indonesia's West Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo which is shared with Malaysia. Indigenous Dayak tribesmen and migrants from Madura, an island off East Java, have been fighting since the start of the year.
Western observers who asked to remain anonymous said that 300 to 500 people had lost their lives in the ethnic unrest.
A source from the military information office told reporters earlier Wednesday that "hundreds" of people have died in the clashes, but later insisted to AFP that casualties were in the dozens.
The observers said that intervention in the unrest by the Indonesian army had triggered an exodus of more than 25,000 people fleeing the violence. These people were now living in dangerous conditions, they said.
Some 5,000 Madurese have been evacuated back to their home island in Java by the army, while Dayaks fleeing the violence have taken refuge in the regional capital of Pontianak or in remote jungle villages, they said. The unrest in West Kalimantan is the latest of a series of several separate outbreaks of ethnic and religious unrest to hit Indonesia since last October. Malaysia temporarily closed its border with province because of the troubles.
Violence broke out on New Year's eve following a brawl over a woman at pop concert in Sanggau Ledo, near the West Kalimantan capital of Pontianak. Some 5,000 Dayak men went on a rampage, attacking Madurese and their property in the region. Diplomatic sources said this week a harsh military crackdown in the area to quell the unrest had left scores of civilians dead. They added that around 1,000 troops were flown in from outside the territory.
The military information office source denied, however, that troops had injured or killed civilians in securing the area.
"It is very possible that in order to secure the situation, warning shots were fired to disperse the masses. But nobody got injured because of it," the source said. Before Wednesday [12 February], the authorities have declined to give out the number of casualties, saying only that 21 people were missing.
Residents reported mass clashes between the Dayaks and Madurese up to last Friday in the Sambas and Sanggau districts north of Pontianak.
In one of the largest clashes, 130 Dayaks were shot dead and 31 others injured in Sanggau during a military operation to quell the unrest, the western observers said. Witnesses in towns north of Pontianak, spoke of having heard arms being fired.
Thousands of people have sought shelter in military compounds and relatives' homes around Pontianak since the new violence erupted.
Pontianak residents told AFP on Wednesday the situation remains tense, and that the authorities late Tuesday tried to enforce a curfew from 8:00 p.m., one hour earlier than the curfew which called for by city authorities since late January.
The sources said people wanting to return to Pontianak from towns north of the city were still discouraged "because the safety situation was still uncertain." would only be temporary.
Malaysian border officials said Tuesday they have allowed several hundred Indonesians to cross the border "at their own risk."
Meanwhile, President Suharto complained Wednesday, which has been declared National Press Day, that Indonesian journalists' use of foreign values in reporting the domestic troubles contributed to social unrest.
The media has frontpaged reports of the unrest, including those in West Kalimantan.
"With the use of those unsuitable spectacles, it can be understood why many of our people have become nervous and restless in facing the development of changes," he said.